While many periods in film seemed to focus on particular style of movies, such as the indie boom of the 90’s and the slasher film craze of the 80’s, 2015 was a surprisingly blend of the best from all genres. Hollywood blockbusters shared equal screen time with story-driven dramas, while Netflix and Amazon gave us new places to look for innovative and thought-provoking stories. Some may know that I keep a list on my phone of every film I see, categorizing by what was great and what wasn’t (more on that next week), and yet even for me, figuring out the best films of the year was tough. But Despite this, these 10 films managed to shine through the rest, evolving their genres, offering challenging ideas and stories, and showing us why it is that we love movies.
Honorable Mention- Krampus
Just barely getting knocked off the list, Krampus was an underappreciated gem that was both funnier then it had any right to be, and creepy in a way that didn’t feel silly. The film serves as an excellent homage to children’s horror films from the past, namely Gremlins, while also addressing a real issue in todays society: the Christmas spirit and how we share it with others. Tackling issues like consumerism and our own tendency to neglect the things we are so lucky to have in our lives. Add on some great creature design, as well as great comedic performances from Adam Scott and David Koechner, and you have a film that manages to be a lot of fun, while being just shy of greatness.
Number 10- Kingsman: The Secret Service
It’s unwise to expect anything great during the first few months of the year, with companies usually using this time to recover from their major releases the previous year, and throwing out any cheap production that wouldn’t last any other month. So it came as a surprise that Kingsman, Director Matthew Vaughn’s action send off of the spy genre, was enjoyable as both a simple action flick and smart comedy. Samuel L Jackson and Colin Firth both deliver enjoyable performances, both playing up their stereotypical role as mentor and villain, but newcomer Taron Egerton steals the show as our charming lead Eggsy. Add on a fantastic action set piece set to Free Bird (because guys, the movie gave us back Free Bird, and made it seem awesome!) and Kingsman turned out to be the exception to the rule of the January/February curse.
Number 9- The Martian
What Interstellar arguable should have been, it’s always great to see a science movie that actually shows how fun and important science is. While not as thrilling or surprising as some other films on this list, as well as a being a little long, The Martian still gets by on the standout performance by Matt Damon. Don’t get me wrong, all the actors do a great job, but Damon brings a level of charm and realism to his character that pulls audiences in and doesn’t let go until the credits begin rolling. Even if you’ve seen this movie before, Damon makes it feel like you’re right there with him on Mars, where every bit of progress is a victory, and each setback feels that much more like it could be the end. Simply put, its always nice to have a movie that reminds us why we like certain actors, and that this one manages to also be a fun ride also helped it stand out in 2015.
Number 8- The Avengers: Age of Ultron
True, it didn’t set the world on fire as much as the original Avengers film, but Age of Ultron continued to prove why Marvel is the best at what they do. A film as focused on the interactions between our favorite heroes as it is on big scale action, with every returning star feeling comfortable in their role, which helps bring out the drama while still keeping things fun and light-hearted. James Spader shines as the villainous Ultron, and helps keep him from being the typical one-dimensional bad guy that Marvel has been struggling with. Every character is given their moment to shine, whether performing daring heroics or just simply as a person, and the film manages to make room for newcomers Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and The Vision without feeling bloated. While I hope for more from next years Captain America: Civil War, Age of Ultron still managed to be a fun start to the summer, while still continuing to push the super hero genre forward.
Number 7- Beasts of No Nation
The first Netflix original movie, Beasts is a challenging look at the world of African child soldiers, and is perhaps director Cary Fukunaga’s best work. This movie does for child soldiers what Saving Private Ryan did for World War 2, placing viewers directly in front of the violent, tragic realities of war without restraint, yet managing to not go over into excess or glorification. Newcomer Abraham Attah does a tremendous job with such difficult material, but Idres Elba delivers an Oscar-deserving role as the Commandant, a flawed leader that is at one time terrifying, yet at the other a nurturing father figure. And despite the brutality and horror of this story, the cinematography still manages to stand out as particularly beautiful, showcasing the detailed destruction of war torn cities and the untouched African Jungles. Do yourself a favor and take time to watch this film without distraction, as it’s worth immersing yourself in what, for many, is still a reality.
Number 6- It Follows
A Sexually Transmitted spirit is a horror concept that easily could have gone into the same level of camp as the usually direct-to-DVD trash you find in the corners of Netflix. But luckily, It Follows treats its subject matter seriously, really looking into what sex means for our society. A lot of what is subtext in lesser films is made into pivotal plot points, and the entire cast manages to play up the terror of the situation. The “It” in question also manages to be a creative new villain in the horror genre, taking the appearance of anyone and slowly, but constantly, chasing after our main characters. Bringing up interesting discussion and scares in equal measure, It follows was not only the best horror film of the year, but also the smartest.
Number 5- Ex Machina
What is it to be human, or more importantly, what is required to necessitate humanity? Of the many questions that Ex Machina asks of its audience, this is the most clear. And yet what’s most impressive about the film is that, if you look for it, that’s not the only question asked. Ex Machina, besides being expertly written, beautifully shot, and well acted by its entire cast, is the rare film where different people will see something different from the film. The less I say about this Sci-Fi Gem the better, but I will say that the conversations I have had over this film just shine on how multi-layered and deep of a film this can be for those who look for it.
Number 4- Inside Out
Pixar hasn’t been doing so well, as of late, with lazy cash-ins like Cars 2 and failed new ideas like Brave making it appear that Pixar had run out of ideas. Then out of nowhere, Inside Out comes out and I’m crying like a baby on my couch. Maybe it was how the human characters and emotion characters alike drew me in, or perhaps the level of detail given to the inner workings of young Riley’s mind that helped draw me into this world, but what it really comes down to is that Pixar managed to re-capture that Disney magic they became synonymous for when I was a child. They make great movies that are simple enough for kids, and yet deep enough to reach adults on both a mental and emotional level, and in that regard Inside Out was a terrific return to form. Here’s hoping they can keep up this momentum once again.
Number 3- Straight Outta Compton
The story of N.W.A’s rise to power is that rare music biopic that manages to be about something more then just the music. Director F. Gary Gray smartly chooses to look at the group’s reflection and impact on society, showcasing N.W.A.’s notoriety around events the Rodney King trials and using them as a reflection of the kinds of stories of police violence we hear about in our daily lives (appropriately, the film was released on the one year anniversary of Michael Brown in Ferguson). Along with great social commentary, the film brings us close into the lives of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and especially Easy E, showing how they aren’t just talented musicians, but in their own way flawed people. As someone tired of Musical Biopics, Straight Outta Compton comes as surprising, talented and important as the band it portrays was back in their heyday.
Number 2- Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens
They did it. As someone who grew up with the disappointing-at-best prequels, the idea of a new trilogy both excited and worried me. And yet, somehow, J.J. Abrams managed to do almost everything right. The cast, both new and old, is incredible, making new comers like Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn feel as iconic as returning heroes Han and Chewie. The return to more practical effects helps return to the Star Wars world we know, while CGI is used only when necessary, yet blends in seamlessly. But the biggest accomplishment is how naturally this appeals to everyone; long time Star Wars fans will find this to be a continuation on the themes, ideas and universe from the original trilogy, while new comers will find the Force Awakens to be accessible, yet layered with depth, mythos and intrigue. It’s a film so good that reusing major plot points from A New Hope doesn’t matter, because of how well done everything new is, and how much is set up for the films to come by the end credits. Believe the hype, and go see this one as soon as you can.
Number 1- Mad Max: Fury Road
It was a tough call between this and Force Awakens as my favorite film, but the deciding factor was simple: Star Wars was a great sci-fi film, but Fury Road has changed the action genre. The film takes risks few others do, like using real stunts and explosions, as well as putting their actors in very real danger. But for every risk taken, the action has never looked so viscerally real, yet still rivaling it’s more over the top contemporaries. Yet with all that in mind, characters still manage to take priority, with special mention needing to be made to for max and Nux, but it’s Furiosa that is the driving force behind the entire film. What Charlize Theron manages to do with this role will be written about for years to come. The cinematography helps bring this world to life, and shows both the beauty and insanity of this destroyed world, with every scene a work of art. There are too many revolutionary things in this film to bring up in one quick summary, and that Fury Road is up for Golden Globes, and likely Academy Awards, is a sign of how Fury Road is not only the best action film of the year, but also the Best film of 2015.